I’ve been drawn lately to lots of nonfiction and memoir about walking and landscape. I recommend any of Robert Macfarlane‘s many titles. I’ve mentioned him before. He’s the type of writer that leads you to ten other artists or walkers or poets.
The Old Ways is a kind of elegy to one of his heroes, the poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917), who was a lover of nature, a depressive, and a passionate lifelong walker, especially in and around the South Downs.
Edward was married to Helen (1877-1967) and Helen has a wonderful book called Under Storm’s Wing that includes two of her shorter works, both about her life with Edward (As It Was and World Without End), as well as letters and memoirs.
The couple had three children, were more or less perpetually broke, and lived in a succession of houses in the English countryside. I can’t get enough of reading of their way of life. A small sampling:
Of a long summer holiday the family took with Robert Frost and his family (Frost and Edward Thomas were great friends) in a remote hamlet in Herefordshire:
“In the morning we were able to take stock of our surroundings and found everything very much to our satisfaction. The farmhouse stood among large orchards in which were grown thousands of dessert plums, each hanging in its own muslin bag to protect it from wasps, birds and insects. These plums had to be without blemish and of perfect shape. When they had reached perfection, they were packed for Covent Garden, each in its own cotton-wool-lined compartment. The outside of the farmhouse was hung with delicious fruit which we were allowed to pick–greengages and large golden or purple juicy plums.”
Of a visit to Edward’s Welsh relatives, in a village where most of the men were employed in the local tin-plating works. Helen is describing Mrs Hughes, the matriarch of a large and noisy family:
“In spite of her great bulk she was never idle. If she was not tackling a huge family washing-day, she was baking a batch of large crusty sweet-smelling loaves, or cutting thick rashers from the delicious home-cured bacon which was their chief food. Everything in this kitchen was on a grand scale. The long heavy table scrubbed white, the giant-sized oval frying pan always on the hob, the enormous enamel teapot, its contents black and boiling, for food and drink were always ready for the men coming off shifts. A white cloth would be spread over the table and plates of home grown food, meat and vegetables, would be put round; and to the noise of laughter and talk would be added the clatter of knives and forks and the clink of cups and saucers, for always tea accompanied every meal.
These meals used to terrify me because one was expected to eat so much. First of all the meat and vegetables, and before one had gotten halfway through that, a thick wedge of apple tart would be put alongside, and after that waiting to be eaten a plate of cake or slices of bread and home-produced honey.”
From Thomas’s daughter Myfanwy’s childhood memories:
“Mother would take me out in a wooden push-chair called a mail-cart, along the lanes or down the long hill to Steep. Sometimes we were given a ride in Mrs Dennet’s pony trap, from which she delivered pats of dewy butter wrapped in a fresh cabbage leaf, and brown eggs from a large basket. Often we would picnic on the Shoulder of Mutton among the juniper bushes and yew-trees, while [her sister] Bronwen picked bunches of harebells, milkwort and sheeps-bit scabious…The picnic knife for cutting the fruit-cake, of which my father was so fond, was cleaned by digging the blade into the springy turf, apple-cores were hidden in bushes and wrapping papers put back into the haversack.”
Edward enlisted in the British Army at the start of WWI and died in action at 39. Helen was devastated.
The point in copying all this out being…What do we love? What are we willing to suffer for?
What are we transmitting to each other in the way of hope, adventure, excitement, curiosity, new finds, each day?
For hope, adventure, excitement, and the transferral of enthusiasm are surely the essence of the “life” we Catholics so vociferously claim to promote…
A dewy pat of butter in a fresh cabbage leaf! Now that’s worth bringing a kid into the world for…